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‘Through the roof’ food prices in remote NT are forcing Aboriginal families to make impossible choices | Northern Territory

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John Paterson regularly has people from remote communities text him grocery receipts to show how prices have spiked over the past few months.

Travelling across the Northern Territory in his role as CEO of Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (Amsant), Paterson says he notices prices increase sharply the more remote the location.

“It has almost become unaffordable now,” he says.

In the Northern Territory, food in supermarkets is 56% more expensive in remote communities than regional supermarkets due to long supply chains and poor quality roads, according to a 2021 report by Amsant.

Inflation – predicted to reach 6% by year’s end – has increased pressure.

The Arnhem Land Progress Association (Alpa), supports 27 remote community stores by securing grocery items and covering the store’s freight budgets to reduce the cost of food. Normally, its annual freight budget is $250,000.

But in the past 18 months, the fuel levy to deliver food to just five of its remote communities – that require delivery by sea – has risen from $37,000 to $279,000.

“One group of … refrigerated pallets [of food] normally costs up to $267,” says Alastair King, CEO of Alpa. “With the current increases that now costs $341.”

“We are currently absorbing that and it is completely unsustainable.”

Rob Totten, store manager of a supermarket in Maningrida, Arnhem Land, says the price of some food products has “gone through the roof”.

“Baked beans have gone from $29.95 to $33.80 a carton. One carton of corned beef was $151 in April and it’s now $176,” he says, adding this doesn’t factor in the additional costs from increased freight charges.

“We definitely can’t absorb that or we won’t be here to supply the food. So we have to actually put the cost of food up.”

One shopper showed Guardian Australia a receipt of $9.20 for two litres of milk.

Receipt showing the price of milk in Kaltukatjara Docker River community in the NT.
The price of milk in Kaltukatjara Docker River community in the NT. Photograph: Margaret Kananagh

In the 2018–19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, 43% of Indigenous people living in remote communities reported that they had run out of food in the previous 12 months.

“[When] you don’t have an increase in terms of your income to be able to meet these cost of living pressures, what you end up with is families having to decide what they do,” says Deborah Di Natale, CEO of the Northern Territory of Council Services.

“Do they pay for medicine? Or do they pay for the cereal in the morning? Those are really unacceptable situations for families that are living in poverty.”

In October last year, Foodbank South Australia opened a new service in Alice Springs and Ceduna. CEO Greg Pattinson says they have had people travelling from across the Western Australia border, representatives from schools from as far as 900km, travel to pick up food and take it back to their communities.

Foodbank hopes to extend to more remote communities, but he says rising costs means it is now limited in how much it can help people.

“Our ability to buy food is now restricted as well because we’ve limited funds from our fundraising and the cost of things like milk and meat and those key staple foods are increasing,” Pattinson says.

“That means we aren’t going to have as much food as we had last year to be able to support people. And that’s the issue I’ve seen, we are seeing more people coming through but our ability to support them is potentially diminishing. It’s quite concerning.”

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Prof Jon Altman, an expert in economic development for Indigenous Australia at ANU and a director of the Karrkad-Kanjdji Trust – a charity that delivers food and medicine to three remote Indigenous communities – says the decision by the federal government to raise the rate of jobseeker during the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that increased income support can help alleviate food insecurity in remote communities.

With more income, Altman says people reported they were buying more food and were less hungry.

“If you really want to address these issues then the thing to do is to give people more realistic income, particularly when they live remotely,” he says.

After the 2020 inquiry into food prices and food security in remote Indigenous communities, the Coalition committed $5m in the 2021-2022 budget. This was later increased to $8m, to assist remote community stores to overcome barriers to food security.

“Outcomes from this grant round were announced in March 2022 and the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) is currently working with successful applicants to enter into funding agreements,” said a spokesperson from the NIAA.

“The NIAA continues to work closely with communities, stores and other industry stakeholders to address food security risks across the country.”

Paterson is advocating to extend the footprint of an Aboriginal controlled organisation like Alpa to increase the buying power of remote community stores.

“People want fresher food, they want cheaper food, and the way to do that is bulk purchasing by community stores that are run and led by Aboriginal people,” he says.

“If we want to close the gap, plus the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, then food security is a major issue that needs serious attention.”

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